A few weeks ago I noticed a startling story in the “Money” section of USA TODAY.
The main head announced purportedly good news: RIDERS CROWD PUBLIC TRANSIT SYSTEMS, and then came that surprising subhead: HIGHEST USE SINCE THE 1950’s AT MORE THAN 10 BILLION TRIPS.
Sure enough, the body of the article explained that the American Public Transportation Association reported that ridership rose in 2006 some 2.9%, to reach the highest levels since 1957.
Did you know that there were more people using mass transit during the ‘40’s and early ‘50’s than there are today? I most certainly did not. This is an astonishing revelation when you think about it.
First of all, the population of the country was barely half what it is today—and yet more people rode mass transit.
Moreover, during the last 50 years we’ve poured literally hundreds of billions of dollars into the most expensive, glitzy, ambitious mass transit projects in history--- BART in San Francisco, MARTA in Atlanta, MetroRail in LA, plus impressive new projects in Minneapolis, Portland and Washington DC, and nearly everywhere else. With all these elaborate new systems, with high-tech buses, with propaganda about global warming and government policies designed to force you out of your car, it’s astonishing to think that more people used mass transit when America had half the people it has today – and none of the high-tech, new rapid transit systems.
No, we didn’t use buses and subways more frequently in the long-ago ‘50’s because the service was better: by most measures, it wasn’t as good, the buses weren’t as comfortable, and some of the huge systems we enjoy today didn’t even exist.
There was only one reason that more people used buses and trains in those days ---and that was because they were relatively poor, and couldn’t afford to own or operate their own cars.
As recently as 1960, Americans owned less than 400 cars per one thousand population: many families had no cars at all, and owning more than one car per household represented a privileged rarity. Today, we possess more than 800 cars per 1000 population – approaching one car for every man, woman and child, with two or three vehicles in a typical family.
Of course, many social planners and environmentalists want us give up all those gas guzzlers and get back on the bus like we did fifty years ago. But the change in automobile ownership still gives some indication of the vast distance traveled by ordinary Americans in their journey toward wealth, choices, and personal freedom.